Colombia Travel Guide
Colombia is South America’s second most populated country and houses 10% of the world’s biodiversity. The country is emerging from the dark shadow of its reputation for kidnapping and drugs to become the highlight of many people’s visits to South America. It’s the new “it” spot to visit (and move to). Fans of history and archaeology will enjoy Bogota’s many museums but will be truly impressed by the Tierradentro, Lost City and San Agustín sites. Beyond the history, you can also find beautiful beaches, wild dancing, delicious food, and great nightlife in Colombia. You can use the travel tips here to plan your dream trip. Don’t let the media fool you – Colombia is amazing.
- Accommodation – Most hostel dorm rooms cost between $15-20 USD per night. Hotels cost around $50 USD per night for either single or double.
- Food – In cities, you’ll find smaller places filled with locals taking advantage of set lunches that are a great experience. These can cost as little as $3 USD. If you’re looking for something more basic, most western dishes will cost about $7 USD for a burger, sandwich, or pizza. Grocery shopping is very cheap, costing about $40 USD a week. The most popular street snacks are empanadas that are as little as $1 USD.
- Transportation – Buses are actually quite expensive. While long-distance trips can cost just around $55 USD one way, fares are sometimes as high as $100 USD. Budget airlines are often cheaper than buses in Colombia so make sure to check the airline websites listed below for fare information. VivaColombia is a Ryan Air equivalent, with super cheap online deals and strict luggage restrictions. There are no trains in the country.
- Activities – Attractions are quite reasonably priced. A tour of a coffee plantation can cost as little as $5 USD (visit Don Elias in Salento for an intimate and wonderful tour of a tiny plantation) or as much as $50 USD depending on what you’re into, while entrance to the country’s many national parks are normally around $15 USD and your ticket is valid for up to a week. However, you can also find many free national parks throughout the country.
Money Saving Tips
- Get a student card – If you’re a student, be sure to bring your card to get discounts at many of the museums and tourist sites in the country.
- Negotiate – Prices for bus tickets and taxis are sometimes negotiable, so try to haggle to bring the costs down. In the off season, you can also negotiate discounts of guesthouses if you have good Spanish skills.
- Get an Hola Hostel Card – It’s free to sign up, and Hola Hostels in Colombia are of fantastic quality. They offer many “boutique hostels” for under $12 USD per night. Get your card online or at a participating hostel.
Top Things to See and Do in Colombia
- Get lost in Bogotá – Colombia’s capital is a mish-mash of architecture: skyscrapers tower over intricate churches and cafe-lined plazas. Bogotá also has excellent museums with free entry on Sundays. Be sure to stop into the Museo del Oro to see one of the world’s largest collections of gold. The city also has an incredible nightlife that goes late into the morning.
- Journey to Isla Gorgona – Once a prison island, Isla Gorgona is now part of a national park which lies 30 miles from the Pacific coast. You’re likely to see snakes, bats, monkeys, and sloths when you get here, but the boat journey offers many chances to see humpback whales, sharks, and giant sea turtles. The remains of the prison are also pretty cool.
- Explore Tierradentro National Park – This archaeological site is one of the most visited attractions in the country. Designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tierradentro boasts two museums, one displaying archaeological finds and an ethnological museum. The main draw here is the 78 open burial tombs and accompanying paintings and sculptures.
- Trek to the Lost City (Ciudad Perdida) – Discovered in 1972, Ciuadad Perdida is the remains of an ancient city lying in the Sierra Nevada region of Colombia. Visitors make the lengthy trip through the jungle to see the 169 terraces built into the mountainside.
- Visit San Agustín – The site is famous for its huge stone sculptures dating back to 100 and 1200 AD, some of which are over 3200 tall and weigh tons. The site was declared a World Heritage Site in 1995.
- Fall in love with Medellin – Medellin is the second largest city in the country and is regularly revered as one of the most beautiful places in South America. Though it has a sordid past with drugs, the city is now a popular place for salsa and expats. It has totally changed it’s image and now one of the top “it” places to visit in the world. The perfect time to visit Medellin is during its Flower Festival – you’ll see why it has earned the nickname “the Capital of Flowers”.
- Walk the old town of Cartagena – Competing with Medellin for the title of Colombia’s prettiest city is Cartagena, one of the country’s fashionable seaside resorts. The cobbled streets of the Old Town are lined with balconies and have an old Spanish colonial feel to them.
- Journey into the Amazon – The Amazon basin covers almost one third of Colombia and is the perfect place to do some jungle trekking. Most tours involve taking a boat up the river and a stop off with an indigenous tribe before arriving at Amacayacu National Park to begin your trek.
- Go Diving – Colombia may not be the first place you think of when planning a dive trip but there are some top-class sites in the country. The tropical waters tropical waters around San Andrés and Providencia are home to a myriad of fish and coral species.
- Drink Coffee – Colombia is home to some of the world’s best coffee and a tour of a plantation is a great way to find out how your morning brew gets from coffee grain to coffee cup. You can also buy some freshly-packed coffee at the end of most tours for a much cheaper price than at the supermarkets.
- Take in the chaos of Cali – As Colombia’s third largest city, Cali is the center of the sugar and coffee industry for the country, as well as being host to a terrific nightlife. It’s a wild and bustling city that serves as a popular vacation spot for people in the country.
- Daytrip to Popayan – This tiny town is tucked into a beautiful valley and is one of the most culturally rich colonial towns in all of the country. It has been fully restored and is considered a national monument.
- Go rural in Panaca – In this huge park you can learn how to milk a cow, ride horses, feed goats, and more. There are acrobatic shows as well as a rodeo, shops, and restaurants. It’s a good family destination with lots of kid friendly activities.
- Lounge in Paradise at Tayrona National Park – Probably the number one Colombian hotspot for backpackers, Tayrona Park is a strip of beach paradise near Santa Marta. Most people camp overnight at Cabo San Juan, either renting a tent or a hammock. Book ahead to get a hammock up high on the rocks, so that you’re sleeping directly over the water. Plan to spend at least two days hiking the beaches and lounging around.
- Dance and party through Carnival – It may not be Rio de Janeiro, but Colombia has a great Carnival season. Although the Carnival in Barranquilla (the largest) takes place in February, January is an equally good time to visit. Pasto and Manizales offer carnivals in the first week of January. The Carnaval de Blanco y Negro in Manizales is a wild few days of revelry – make sure you bring old black and white clothes, as you’re certain to get doused in flour, paint, and foam!